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Charles City peer mentors help to feed hungry classmates

Charles City peer mentors help to feed hungry classmates
Charles City freshman Justyn Gilson-Kranzke, junior Adison Olson, junior Katie Mahler, senior Mindi Neve and senior Katie Garcia, all Project RISE student mentors, pose near a food pantry donation bin at the front entrance of Charles City High School. (Press photo James Grob.)
By James Grob,

According to the most recent statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 37 million people in the United States live in food-insecure households — more than 6 million of them children.

In the state of Iowa, one in seven children struggles with hunger — that’s a total of more than 111,000 hungry children.

“With all the students in this community from low-income families, it’s important that they know they have this support from the school, and their fellow students,” said Charles City High School senior Katie Garcia. “We’re hoping the community stays strong with us.”

Garcia and about 60 other students involved with Charles City’s Project RISE peer-mentoring program are doing what they can to try to make sure none of their classmates go home hungry.

With help from community donations, the students have organized and are maintaining the Charles City Community School District Student Food Pantry.

“It’s a new operation that we’re in much need of in our community and in our school,” Garcia said. “With those food donations, we let our students know that if you have a need, let us know, and we’ll get it for you.”

A food-insecure household is defined as a households where, at times, the individuals were uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.

More than 11 percent of households nationwide fit that description.

At the pantry, food-insecure students can anonymously come and take as much as they need, when they need it. The pantry has a strict “no questions asked” policy.

“Some of our mentors were telling us there were kids who were going to bed hungry,” said senior Mindi Neve. “We keep it open at all times, all day every day.”

Junior Adison Olson said the Charles City Project RISE mentors learned that there were other schools that had adopted similar programs, and so they investigated.

“Grundy Center did this, and we had a few people go and see what it was all about,” Olson said. “They said that it’s been really good for them, so we thought that we’d bring it to Charles City since it had such a good impact there.”

The pantry is a fairly new expansion of what is known as “Karleen’s Closet.” The closet is filled with donated items for kids who, for whatever reason, don’t have them. Things such as clothing, shoes, sporting supplies and toiletry and hygienic items are accepted and stored there.

The idea grew out of Charles City’s peer mentoring program, Project RISE, which is a student-led, peer-to-peer program where high school kids volunteer their time to help middle school kids.

Project “RISE” stands for “Respect, Integrity, Success, and Empowerment.”

Dan Caffrey, Charles City High School at-risk coordinator and dropout prevention specialist, is the faculty leader of Project RISE, although the students run the program.

What started off as a small collection of things like clothing and shoes eventually evolved to include personal items and much more. Now, it has expanded to food.

“It’s open all the time, so if kids want to come after school to get the food, they can come after school,” Olson said.

The pantry is fueled by donations from the community, from staff, students and different families all around town.

Food items that can be donated include breakfast items such as Granola bars, cereal, Pop Tarts, instant oatmeal and pancake mix and syrup. Meals can include packages of spaghetti noodles and sauce, bread, Ramen Noodles, Easy Mac, macaroni and cheese, peanut butter, soup, SpaghettiOs, canned ravioli, canned tuna, canned chicken, canned fruit and vegetables, Spam, Hamburger Helper, Tuna Helper and Manwich.

Snack items that can be donated include cheese and crackers and applesauce. Packaged items such as small laundry detergents, shampoo, body wash, deodorant, and toothbrushes and toothpaste are also sought.

“We’re kind of getting crammed with food and clothing and hygiene products in our closet,” Garcia said. “It’s pretty overwhelming, but we’re going the best we can.”

The Project RISE students are building cabinets to better utilize their limited space, and recently a deep-freezer was donated.

Those who would like to donate to the Charles City Student Food Pantry can do so at locations at the middle school and high school offices, the office at Washington Elementary School, the office at Immaculate Conception school, Hy-Vee, the YMCA, Fidelity Bank and SNAP Fitness.

There will also be donation bins and drop boxes at most upcoming home basketball games, concerts, and other CCSD sports and fine arts events.

One such event will be Charles City’s Orange and Black Blowout basketball game on Nov. 22. It will be “fill the truck night” at the game, so fans can support the program while they support the Comet basketball teams.

“People can just bring food in when they come and we’ll have a truck outside they can help us fill up,” Neve said.